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TV Ad Seeking to Buff Up Israel's Image to Air in L.A.

Media: The 30-second spot, to run on cable news channels, shows the nation as a modern democracy. Palestinian Americans have denounced it.

September 29, 2002|JOHANNA NEUMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Skyscrapers appear in the background, computers crowd desks, Muslim women cast votes at a polling place and a voice-over intones, "Israel is America's only real ally in the Middle East ... shared values, shared visions for peace."

A partnership of Jewish organizations in New York and the Silicon Valley has launched a new $1-million television advertising campaign on cable news channels, appearing in the Los Angeles market beginning Monday. Alarmed by polls showing that Israel's image has been tarnished by heavy media coverage of its conflict with Palestinians, the groups designed a 30-second ad that portrays Israel as a modern democracy that prizes free speech, scientific advances and religious freedom.

"The news coverage is factually accurate but misses the truth," said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a consultant who, along with several other pollsters in Washington, produced the ads. "People were starting to think about the Mideast in terms of moral equivalence" between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Washington consultants--Democrats Mizrahi and Stanley Greenberg, pollster to the Clinton White House along with Republicans Frank Luntz, a pollster, and Neil Newhouse from Public Opinion Strategies--found in a study of American public opinion that support for Israel had slipped from a record high of 60% after the Sept. 11 attacks to 42% in July, while support for Palestinians also fell, from 10% to 8%. Concerned about the falloff, they went looking for partners. The American Jewish Committee in New York, and Israel21c in Cupertino, a nonprofit group started by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, soon signed on, and the ad campaign was born.

Palestinian Americans have assailed the ad, which started airing in Washington a few weeks ago, as racist. "It's an old theme, which has long been used to describe the Arab-Israeli conflict,'' said James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute, a think tank in Washington. "Though subtle, it is racist, because, at its core, the message it projects to Americans is that, 'We are like you, [the Arabs] are not.' "

Zogby also questioned the ad's rosy portrayal of Israel as a democracy, when in fact Arab Israelis are denied social benefits. "They have a right to vote, but they are essentially voiceless, third-class citizens," said Zogby.

Replied Larry Weinberg, executive vice president of Israel21c: "We depicted Israel as a vibrant, vital democracy, not a perfect one."

Whatever the merits of the campaign's themes, the ads open a new chapter of advocacy in television advertisements, particularly in foreign policy. Advocacy groups have long used newspaper advertising to promote their causes. And they have often used television campaigns to influence domestic policy in Washington--none more effectively than the "Harry and Louise" spots that helped torpedo the Clinton health-care initiative.

But this is the first time American Jewish groups have taken to the television airwaves to promote Israel, and they predict it will encourage others to join the debate.

"The Jewish community stayed away from television out of fear it would reinforce the old invalid stereotype of Jews controlling the media," said Weinberg of Israel21c. "We were depriving ourselves of one of the most effective communication tools in history so as not to inflame the stereotype."

Luntz, whose polls showed that Americans were beginning to see Israel as undemocratic, called the ads "the first attempt I know of to reach the American electorate. If this ad attracts attention, you'll see more of this, particularly in issues of international security."

Like Weinberg, Mizrahi sees the campaign as the political coming-out of the Jewish community. "In the era after Joe Lieberman [Connecticut Democratic senator and the first Jew nominated for vice president], Jews are comfortable enough that they can say what they believe in on television, not just quietly in the opinion section of the New York Times," she said. "Now they can shout it from the rooftops of CNN."

Actually, CNN turned down the groups' request for air time, arguing that it does not accept advocacy ads on international issues about regions in conflict. It recently turned down an ad from Saudi Arabia, timed to air on the anniversary of Sept. 11, expressing sympathy with Americans during the commemoration. "If you're going to cover the region as closely as we do, it is not appropriate to accept advocacy ads," said CNN spokesman Matthew Furman. "We did not accept them either from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt or Saudi Arabia."

To David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in New York that is co-sponsoring the ads, the turndown was striking in light of charges from some Jewish groups that CNN has a pro-Palestinian tilt in its news coverage. "To us, it was an outrageous decision," said Harris. "An ad about democracy gets turned down when it comes from an American group."

But Israel21c was able to place the ads anyway, through local affiliates. They are scheduled to run in all the places news junkies go--Fox, MSNBC, CNBC, CNN and Headline News--in 100 major markets, as if they had been placed nationally. Then, if deemed a success, backers hope to run a second ad chronicling Israel's support for peace initiatives back to 1947.

"So far, the e-mails have been supportive," Weinberg said. "They come from evangelical Christians, from Jews, from all over the world, thanking us for taking this step."

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